Gut health can impact the entire body, including absorption of nutrients, immune health, and even mood. Compromised gut function can present as both acute or chronic conditions such as abdominal pain, acid reflux, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammation, and diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis.
As a registered dietitian, I’m trained in prevention, treatment, and optimization for an array of health and wellness concerns. One of the popular topics our members ask about is what they can do to help support or improve gut health naturally.
While I wish it were as simple as taking a probiotic and going on our way, it’s multifactorial, like so many systems in our body. The good news is that there are actionable steps to set your gut up for success.
One of the reasons gut health is so complex and doesn’t have one universal solution is that everyone’s gut and bacteria are unique. The human gut microbiota is as unique as a fingerprint!
While there may be necessary medical interventions for certain disease states, there are many ways to improve our gut health naturally.
Before breaking down ways on how to improve your gut health naturally, let’s define some common terms and concepts:
- Microbiome – our whole ecosystem and the microorganisms in a particular environment.
- Microbiota – the types of species and microorganisms (bacteria) in the microbiome Microbiota varies amongst individuals, and changes throughout a person’s life. External factors such as environmental stressors, antibiotics, and diet all play a role in the changing microbiota.
- Probiotics – microorganisms in the GI tract. Often sold as capsules or powder with live bacteria.
- Prebiotics – a non-digestible food ingredient that acts as food for probiotics. They’re not digested but fermented by microflora and help the growth of healthy bacteria. They are naturally found in high-fiber foods such as asparagus, wheat, honey, banana, barley, tomato, rye, soybean, peas, and beans.
- Synbiotics – foods that contain both prebiotics and probiotics.
- Dysbiosis – often referred to as an imbalance in the gut microbial community.
- The digestive system’s primary task is to break down food into nutrients that can be absorbed by your body and used for energy, tissue repair, and muscle growth. It comprises the gastrointestinal tract, which is the largest part of the digestive system—including your mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and large intestine (colon)—and the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder.
- Digestion is an essential function needed for your body to absorb nutrients and gain energy for optimal health. While often thought of as taking place in the stomach, digestion begins in the mouth and ends, where you think it does.
Having the right balance of microorganisms and bacteria in your GI tract will help with overall health. To find the right personal nutrition (mix of fibers and food types) that works best requires some trial and error.
For certain symptoms, there may be more targeted interventions, but there is no one perfect diet for improving gut health. The best dietary intake for someone depends on their symptoms and needs. For example, some inflammation or diseases will require a low-fiber diet, and then as the individual heals, a high-fiber diet is encouraged. Individuals who struggle with regularity will likely benefit from a higher fiber diet, while those with urgency or higher frequency should try a low to moderate fiber intake.
While specific concerns will need closer attention, the following tips are a starting place that can improve a broad variety of gut concerns.
Learn how to improve your gut health naturally with these 10 tips!
1. Understand Sugar Alcohol and Artificial Sweeteners Impact on Gut Health
While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols, sometimes the type or amount of these items can make people feel bloated or gassy. Sugar alcohol tends to cause more symptoms like this vs. artificial sweeteners. It’s important to understand the types of sugar alcohols or sweeteners that your body does well with so you can make an informed choice on how you will feel.
Sugar alcohol, known as a reduced-calorie sweetener, is a type of carbohydrate that is harder to digest.
- Contains some calories
- Can have a laxative effect on some
- Can raise blood sugar, although not as high as regular sugar
- Sugar alcohol is regulated by the FDA, and 10-15g of sugar alcohol per day is generally recognized as safe. This amount per day does vary depending on the type of sugar alcohol. Some sugar alcohols can be consumed in higher amounts (for example, xylitol) but high amounts of consumption may cause diarrhea in some.
- Examples of sugar alcohols: erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol
- Typically found in sugar-free candy, some protein bars, and gum
Artificial sweeteners are known as sugar substitutes.
- Contain no calories
- They do not raise blood sugar levels
- Examples of artificial sweeteners: aspartame (NutraSweet/Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low)
KEY TAKEAWAY: Limit and assess your use of sugar alcohol and products with sugar alcohol to determine personal tolerance and GI symptoms.
2. Add Fermented Foods
Fermentation is a preservation process where sugars break down into bacteria. Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics that help with digestion and support your immune system and overall health. It’s important to note fermented foods are different from “pickled” varieties, and only certain pickled foods with salt (not vinegar) may contain probiotics.
- Look for fermented products in the refrigerated section of stores. Some examples are kefir, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and certain aged cheeses or yogurt with live, active cultures.
- Cooking Tip: try to add these fermented items as condiments and avoid cooking them, which will destroy the probiotics.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Fermented foods provide beneficial probiotics. Try adding 1 serving of fermented foods as condiments or a beverage.
3. Increase Fiber Types
Fruits, vegetables, and other fiber sources are great for our health. Fiber helps prevent disease, increases satiety, and decreases constipation. To increase fiber intake, do it gradually so you can assess how you handle the higher fiber totals.
Fiber recommendations per day:
Age 50 and under:
- Female: 25 grams per day
- Male: 38 grams per day
Age 51 and over:
- Female: 21 grams per day
- Male: 30 grams per day
Eat both fiber types
- There are two main types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both are important for proper function.
- Soluble Fiber dissolves in water and includes many vegetables, oatmeal, beans, lentils, apples, barley, psyllium, and other citrus fruits.
- Insoluble Fiber increases stool bulk to prevent constipation and includes whole grain products, wheat bran, whole wheat flour, and potatoes.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Assess how much fiber you’re currently eating and add more servings gradually.
4. Hydrate More
Being adequately hydrated is important to keep things moving in the GI tract. Water is absorbed in the large intestine/colon and helps produce and pass stool.
- In addition to water, certain food can also provide hydration, including watermelon, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, apples, broth, soup, and any other liquids
KEY TAKEAWAY: For a healthy individual with no medical conditions that limit or restrict water, a good rule of thumb is to consume half of your body weight in ounces of water daily. Example: a 200lb person needs ~100oz of water daily. This total comes from foods and liquids.
5. Decrease Dietary Fat
For many digestive ailments, including heartburn and gastrointestinal reflux (GERD), a low-fat approach may help while experiencing or preventing unpleasant symptoms.
- Opting for grilled, roasted, and baked options instead of deep-fried or pan-fried can help reduce the fat amount of the meal.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Skip fried foods, and lessen the consumption of highly acidic foods, oils, and high-fat condiments and sauces.
6. Keep the Flavor, Skip the Spice
While some love spicy food, the stomach doesn’t always appreciate it. Acidity from red sauce, tomatoes, citrus, and caffeine may exacerbate symptoms of acid reflux and indigestion. Sticking to milder condiments and flavor may help how your stomach feels during and after mealtimes. That doesn’t mean you have to skimp on flavor – there are many ways to add flavor to a meal via fresh herbs, spices, and blends that don’t require high-heat spice.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Reduce the amount of highly acidic food items and move down the heat level on the spice.
7. Connect to De-stress
There is communication between the brain and the gut through the vagus nerve. Breathing exercises, laughing, and singing or humming can help stimulate the vagus nerve. Social engagement and human connection with those you enjoy spending time with are helpful for your stress level which in turn, is helpful for the gut and overall well-being.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Plan a phone call, facetime, or get together with friends or a family member. Social connection is important for improving gut and brain health.
8. Move Often
Incorporating movement every day helps overall blood flow. Blood flow helps aid digestion by supporting the required muscle contractions in the digestive tract (known as peristalsis). Blood helps push this process along, which can help you feel less bloated, and your gut feel better.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Movement doesn’t have to be intense to be effective. General movement can be beneficial for digestion.
9. Get Enough Sleep
There’s an inverse relationship between the gut and sleep. Microbiome diversity is positively correlated with sleep. Additionally, when someone doesn’t have enough rest, hunger and satiety hormones can be impacted, which can increase appetite and lead to overeating. This typically results in reaching for less nutrient-dense foods.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Sleep is important for all functions of our body, including our digestion and dietary intake. Prioritize your wind-down routine and get to bed 30 minutes earlier this week.
10. Limit Alcohol
Reducing and limiting alcohol is an effective way to improve gut and digestive health. Alcohol consumption can cause inflammation in a variety of locations within the digestive system. Specific examples include inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis) and to the pancreas (pancreatitis). The liver is also involved in the digestive system and alcohol metabolism. Large alcohol consumption can lead to fat buildup in the liver. Alcohol may also contribute to acid reflux and disrupt regular digestion.
KEY TAKEAWAY: If you’re someone who drinks, consider reducing the number of drinks per day and per week you consume.
Your Frequently Asked Questions, Answered:
What is the fastest way to improve gut health?
If a food item is causing symptoms, the quickest way to have relief is to temporarily remove the item and assess symptoms without it. In addition, all the tips above are a great place to start healing and working on your gut naturally.
What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?
Signs that you may need to prioritize more focus on your digestive system could be having frequent, and recurring bouts of constipation, urgency, diarrhea, stomach pain, or bloating. (It’s totally normal to have these symptoms from time to time, but if this is becoming the norm, it’s worth discussing with a registered dietitian and doctor).
Should I take a sensitivity test?
When it comes to the topic of allergies and sensitivities, there are two types of antibodies to know:
- Immunoglobulin E (IgE) = antibodies produced by the immune system. “If you have an allergy, your immune system overreacts to an allergen by producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction. This reaction usually causes symptoms in the nose, lungs, throat, or on the skin.” (American Academy of Allergy Asthma Immunology)
- Immunoglobulin G (IgG) = antibodies produced after eating food. If someone has had previous or frequent exposure to a food, this may result in those food items showing up on a food sensitivity test. The presence of IgG can be a normal response of the immune system to exposure to food. Therefore, IgG does not reliably show food allergies or sensitivities.
There are reliable and validated tests for specific allergies and diseases, such as celiac disease (where someone needs to avoid gluten indefinitely). Most tests on the market that diagnose food sensitivities are testing for IgG. So, at the time of this article, there is no single test that can give us all the answers to what foods we should or shouldn’t be eating. For additional information on this subject, please visit the American Academy of Allergy Asthma Immunology
When should I consult a specialist such as a gastroenterologist?
Seeing a GI doctor can be life-changing and lifesaving in some instances. Having regular colonoscopies when you should be is important for preventative care. If something doesn’t seem right, it’s always worth seeing a provider. Even if something doesn’t seem like a big deal, it’s worth advocating for yourself. Some examples would be stomach pain, frequent constipation, a change in bowel regularity, blood in stool, black stool, chronic bloating, chronic/frequent illness, etc.
What are some ways to increase fiber intake for better gut health?
Rather than eating entirely differently than you do currently, try adding fiber-rich items to your current meals and snacks. Adding fiber can make meals more satisfying and enjoyable. Examples include adding spinach or cauliflower to a smoothie/shake, adding beans to your crockpot dish, adding cut-up vegetables with your chips and guacamole, and adding fruit to yogurt.
To learn more about improving your gut health and get personalized support from an experienced registered dietitian or Certified Nutrition Coach, join Stronger U now!